Dear family and friends,
We are on a bullet train from Kobe to Tokyo, where we hope to rendezvous with Yash Owada, my professor from undergraduate years. Kobe was an amazing mixture. We arrived at the wrong terminal for our hotel. There are two stops in Kobe, and there was a man named Makoto, who volunteered to help us get there. This meant hiring a cab, which he insisted on paying, and finding out that our hotel actually had two sites and we were at the wrong site, but it was only a block away. in the course of the cab ride, Makoto told us that he had been working for the United Nations in Kobe, which has been involved in rebuilding Kobe since a massive 7.5 earthquake in 1995. His contract just ended, so you might imagine how I felt accepting his graciousness, facing unemployment. After making sure that the hotel arrangements worked out, Makoto left us with a plan to meet us for dinner on Thursday. He also helped us locate the synagogue in Kobe, a twenty minute walk from ur hotel as it turned out, and we were eager to find it so that we could spend Shavuot with our people. But in what language? A lail tikkun (all night study session) was planned. Services and meals. After finding the synagogue, early, we went for a walk up a steep hill and looked out over the city. The city was devastated in the earthquake. Six thousand died in fires that erupted in the ruins. Buildings have been rebuilt, the port re-established. We could look out across the rebuilt city to the sea port.
The synagogue goes back to the early nineteen hundreds. It has expanded and contracted with the years. Founded by Iraqi and Syrian Jews, its service is Sephardic, even as Ashkenazim lead it. It is lay led, with the leader about to go to Toronto for his phd in math. These were knowledgeable and observant Jews. About half of them, Israelis visiting for the holiday. Other than smoking openly, there were few signs that this was anything but an orthodox synagogue anywhere in the world, except the language. Not Japanese, but Hebrew. Fluent Hebrew for both prayer and study. The meal was an amazing panoply of Israeli salads. It satisfied every culinary urge except cheese cake. We will have to make up for that. But the sense of welcome and community was a beautiful addition to our journey. Not that we lasted the whole night... We were exhausted from our travel from Kyoto and ended our study early. We did however read through a list of the 613 mitzvot. What struck us was how many of them were tied to the practice of the Temple in Jerusalem. These were easy to follow, I thought, because we couldn't observe them.
In the evening, we were met by the brother and sister-in-law of Yash Owada. This was a pre-arranged meeting. They came to our hotel and knew that we were able to walk, not ride. It also was the expectation that they would take us to dinner, again, with some discomfort about social custom. Until this point, I had been under the impression that mine was the only white beard in all of Japan. There are very, very few beards among Japanese at all. In Tokyo, we For the second day, found one, and in Kyoto, peach fuzz you could hardly call a beard. But in walks Takeo Owada with a beautiful, nicely groomed Abraham Lincoln style white beard. He looked like my older brother, and not much older at that! You have to understand, we had never met Takeo and Kuniko and here they were greeting us with warmth that transcended all language barriers. Our Japanese is now about four words. Hello at three times of day and Goodbye (sayonara).
Oh, and arigato, (thank you!), which we've been saying a lot.
So, here we were walking into a very fancy building taking an elevator to the top, into a restaurant that bar none was as nice as any restaurant we have ever been in. With a view... oh my gosh, what a view of the city! We ate a meal that was served over the next two hours, in courses ranging from the freshest of vegetables (exotic ones) to supremely tasty sushi to a style of steam cooking in a box at the table of fish and veggies that I want to learn how to make. We drank refreshing plum wine and intoxicating sake. We floated out of there pregnant from this meal, aware how wonderful it felt to be welcomed and honored. In the course of the conversation we learned that Takeo is a psychologist who counsels many of those who still suffer from the trauma of the earthquake and that Kuniko taught Japanese to foreigners. They both came armed with translators and patience which we were wholly touched by Oh, how arigato seems inadequate to articulate our gratitude.
For the second day of Shavuot, we returned to shul for services and yet another meal. A very, very festive and filling one. We took a long walk to the port and walked along the sea on the coast of Japan for the first time. It was our first time walking along the shore with the Pacific Ocean to the west. At the port, there is an exhibit of the devastation from the earthquake, a preservation of a road in ruins, photographs, and a film of the fires and buildings and the port itself that were left unusable. This is such a stunning contrast to the resilience of beautiful buildings, fancy hotels, a cruise liner unloading passengers ashore. But the recovery is not only measured in buildings and the trauma lingers in the people.
As if we needed to eat again, we returned to meet Mukato at our hotel. He was our new found friend and we went to yet another style of Japanese cooking. Wonderful; thankfully our treat! After that we ended the evening at a Jazz club. This club had wonderful live jazz. They were great! And not blasting away like some clubs in America. Now, think about that: Jazz in Japan. An American music with Japanese musicians and a singer, whose American accent was flawless. What a symbol of positive incorporation of America's best offering. It stands alongside the McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken like a pearl in a vat of mud. The symbolism did not escape us as we talked with Mokato about the presence of American troops in Japan, and Japan's lack of a military since the war. In many ways, our cultures are allied and the war is in the distant past. Thank G-d. I'm sure hopeful that we will meet Mukato again as he visits us in Portland.
So, now our train is ending, as we approach Tokyo, some three hours later. I played scrabble on my ipod, and am 1 and 1 against the machine in completed games. Laurie has been sleeping and reading emails. We are very much enjoying our second honeymoon and sabbatical in case you were wondering.